TRANSCRIPT: ABC Radio Newcastle, Thursday 30 July 2015






SUBJECTS: Foreign aid cuts; Bronwyn Bishop

PAUL BEVAN, PRESENTER: The Deputy Leader of the Federal Opposition is also the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development. She is Tanya Plibersek and she has been in the Hunter today addressing some public forums- a public forum at least, on foreign aid and Australia’s global responsibilities. This has been happening in Lake Macquarie, the Lake Macquarie Hotel in Morisset but she took a small amount of time out to talk to us about this in advance of the meeting and here is that conversation.


BEVAN: I’m very well and thanks for joining us here in the Hunter today. What brings you here?

PLIBERSEK: I’ve just been down near Gosford and now I’m up on my way to Morisset to talk to community members really about the massive cuts to the Australian aid budget. We’re actually doing worse than we’ve ever done as a donor nation. We’re going to the lowest proportion of our budget spent on aid since records were kept and the effect of that obviously on poor people in developing nations is very significant but the effect on our international reputation is significant too.

BEVAN: Do you think foreign aid is a soft target for a government that’s trying to save money?

PLIBERSEK: Well, it’s a very easy cut to make in one respect because you don’t need legislation to go through the Parliament. A lot of the other cuts like the attempted cuts to pensions, the increased costs to university degrees, the cuts to youth allowance and so on, all of those need legislation to be passed through the Parliament but the aid budget doesn’t so it’s been cut three times since this Government came into office.

BEVAN: How, though, do you convince the electorate that seems to believe that we have to get our own house in order first? The Government’s argument [inaudible] by the lack of ferocity on the part of the electorate in coming back at the Government, it seems to be working, that we need to get our own house in order before we help those around us.

PLIBERSEK: Well, I guess there’s a couple of things to say about that. The first is that by international standards, Australia’s doing pretty well and countries that are much worse off than us haven’t cut their aid budget to balance their own domestic budget. The second thing I’d say is, it’s actually in our national interest to be a donor country. Look at a country like South Korea. South Korea used to be a recipient of Australia’s aid, now it’s one of our major trading partners. We do better in Australia when the countries in our region increase their own prosperity because instead of staying aid recipient nations they become strong trading partners for us.

BEVAN: Although from what I understand, when the Government was determining where they would cut the foreign aid, they looked at various issues, amongst them were that those countries themselves were giving foreign aid to others. So why would we give foreign aid to countries that are then giving foreign aid to others?

PLIBERSEK: You’re talking about a tiny minority of examples there and a very modest contribution. I think that that’s a little bit of a furphy really that the Government have set out there. When you look at the sort of cuts that have been made, we’ve seen cuts of up to 40% to countries in our region that are pretty poor countries, countries like Myanmar or Burma, you know, very many millions of dollars not spent there. It’s a country that’s just emerging out of a period of military rule, it’s struggling towards democracy, the economy is under a lot of pressure. We in fact get a lot of refugees leaving Burma or Myanmar, the Rohingya refugees in particular, you see it’s a country that needs enormous assistance. We’ve actually cut our assistance there. You also look at countries that are- take the Middle East for example, Syria has a population about the same size as Australia, 23 million people. 11.5 million Syrians are either displaced internally within Syria or in neighbouring countries and we’ve cut our aid in that region as well. So, people who are fleeing the conflict in Syria are getting less help from Australia.

BEVAN: To the other point the Government made is the second thing they looked at when they were determining where to cut was at the forecast economic growth of those recipient countries and their capacity to achieve that, if they were in a position to achieve their forecast economic growth and do they need our foreign aid?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think it’s pretty hard to argue that even a country like Indonesia that’s growing very strongly doesn’t have many millions of people living in abject poverty. So of course, our hope will always be those countries move to economic self-sufficiency, that they become donor nations instead of nations that receive aid. But if we can get in as those countries are developing and assist them with things like strengthening their electoral systems, encouraging measures that prevent corruption, then we help them with their economic growth and it goes back to that original argument as they go from being a recipient of our aid to a trading partner – we actually have a much wealthier trading partner that can buy more Australian goods. So I think a lot of these justifications are really after the fact, justifications the Government has cut $11 billion, more than $11 billion from the aid budget, they’re now working out what distractions they can work around that to make it look fairer than it actually is.

BEVAN: So what would Labor do if re-elected next year?

PLIBERSEK: Well, we certainly wouldn’t continue with the aid cuts that are scheduled by this Government-

BEVAN: Would you go beyond restoring it to where it was?

PLIBERSEK: It would be very difficult to do that in the short term. We doubled the aid budget when we were in government. We went from $2.9 billion to $5.8 billion and we almost achieved our target of 0.5% of GDP being spent on aid. So that’s 50 cents of every $100 that we make as a nation going to aid. It’s a lot less than people think. We hadn’t quite reached that target. We’re down now at around 22 cents in every $100 and the Government’s taking us down to about 17 cents in every $100. We would certainly do much better than that. But to get back to where we were, to that target of 0.5% of our national wealth going on aid, we’d have to find an extra $66 billion over 10 years so of course we can’t get there any time in the short term. In the longer term we certainly hope to get there.

BEVAN: Is it something you think would be a winning strategy with the electorate, the way you read the electorate in Australia, do you think campaigning on an issue of restoring foreign aid would actually go down well?

PLIBERSEK: Actually I don’t think that’s the reason to do it. I think this is not a top of mind issue for most people in the electorate and I don’t think it’s a vote changer either way, sadly, I think. It is however absolutely the right thing to do. We’ve got a responsibility as a good global citizen, but we also have self-interest. Stronger economies make for better trading partners, stronger health systems in our region mean we’re less likely to have epidemics or pandemics on our doorstep, countries that are more peaceful and more prosperous mean that we won’t have to be sending Australians overseas to help keep the peace as we’ve had to a few times in our region. There’s a very strong and good reason to do it for our own interests and I think it’s important for me to continue to explain that case.

BEVAN: Okay. I’m talking to Tanya Plibersek who’s visiting the Hunter and the Central Coast today. I can’t let you go without asking you the news of the day, I guess, one aspect of it is Bronwyn Bishop. She’s now apologised, she said sorry and promised to pay back all of the money for all of the weddings. Is that not good enough for the ALP?

PLIBERSEK: I’m still gobsmacked by the idea that people think it’s okay to charge the taxpayer to go to a wedding so I’m still getting over that. Look, this is an apology that’s been dragged out of Bronwyn Bishop. She’s sorry she was caught. I really question the ability for someone who’s got such a lax interpretation of the rules when it comes to her own self, I question her ability to be the person who’s supposed to enforce the rules on the Parliament. I think-

BEVAN: So the ALP won’t stop until she’s gone?

PLIBERSEK: Well, you make it sound like a personal vendetta and that’s not the issue here. This is a terrible abuse of taxpayer funds and it’s taken weeks for the Speaker to admit that. It seems that she’s only admitted it now because the pressure has increased from her own party and there’s obviously people out there saying that- from the Liberal Party, that are saying her position is a distraction, it’s unsustainable and so on. I think it’s a problem that it’s not the action that has prompted this apology, it’s the fact that she was caught.

BEVAN: Tanya Plibersek, really interesting to talk to you, thank you very much for giving us some of your afternoon.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you, pleasure to talk to you.